Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Fairfield survivor's memoir reaches young audiences

By Cindy Mindell
Connecticut Jewish Ledger

Published: Tuesday, April 10, 2007 5:45 PM EDT

FAIRFIELD -- Martin Schiller has his own Yom HaShoah, the day he was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. It was April 11, and “Menek” Schiller was 12. His brother, “Chamush,” was 13.

“That to me is really a red-letter day,” Schiller says. “It's very emotional because I never fail to remember those who did not make it.”

Earlier this year, he published an autobiography, as a way to reach young readers and to fulfill an old promise.

“There was a man I admired in camp, called The Learned,” Schiller says. “He admonished us all that whoever survives must tell the world what happened.”

It took Schiller 50 years to find time to write. Arriving in the U.S. with his brother and mother in 1946, Schiller was too busy getting an education, serving in the U.S. Navy, then building a successful career as an electrical engineer specializing in air-pollution control. He got married and raised two daughters and a son, Marc.

Marc started “bugging” his father to go back to Poland and Germany 12 years ago. “He wanted to walk in the steps where his grandparents and I walked,” Martin says. “As far as I was concerned, Poland was one big cemetery. But there was a pull to go back to Buchenwald, because throughout my life in the U.S., I've had some pretty bad recurring nightmares, and I thought if I went back to Buchenwald, I might find some closure.”

In 2004, Schiller retired and finally gave in. He planned an itinerary for his wife, son and daughter-in-law, and one daughter. He wrote about the places they'd visit, to give his family some understanding and context.

After the trip, Schiller sat down to write his book. “Bread, Butter and Sugar” (Hamilton Books, February 2007) was Menek's favorite childhood treat before the family was forced to flee their native Tarnobrzeg as the Nazis invaded Poland.

“I wanted to catch the interest of the young reader, who I'm hoping will carry the torch of remembrance,” Schiller says.

Schiller is already seeing his story reach that target, as far away as Augusta, Ga. Rita S. Rosier, who teaches Advanced Placement English at the A. R. Johnson Health Science & Engineering Magnet High School, chose “Bread, Butter and Sugar” for next year's curriculum.

“This book is so haunting in its imagery and so stylistically perfect in its creation, that it demands and deserves a close reading and careful study,” says Rosier, whose students participate in the Holland and Knight Charitable Foundation's Holocaust Remembrance Project scholarship essay contest. “Students are better able to understand the impact of the Holocaust when they can study individuals and place a name and a biographical history to the horrendous statistics and photographs they encounter during their research,” she says. “In their words, it 'makes it real.'”

Locally, Schiller is involved in the Adopt a Survivor program at Merkaz, the Jewish community high school in Bridgeport. A survivor is paired with a student, who “absorbs” the survivor's life story in detail, and pledges to represent the survivor and tell his or her story for the next 50 years.

Son Marc produced “Higher Fences,” a documentary on the family's 2004 trip to Poland, which he is submitting to film festivals around the world.


Martin Schiller will speak at Fairfield University on April 24 at 5 p.m. For information: (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066.

Survivors and Merkaz students involved in Adopt a Survivor will speak on April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport. For information: (203) 372-6567, ext. 126.

Merkaz's Adopt a Survivor participants, and program founder Irving Roth, will speak on April 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Fairfield. For information: (203) 259-8396.

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